Something's Got to Give (1962)

Billy Wilder, attempting to define the mysterious potency of Marilyn Monroe, said that “She had great flesh impact,” which is an absolutely VILE phrase, calling to mind the image of an overweight naked person colliding with one’s windscreen (I should never have drunk those pina coladas and smoked that crack!) but we kind of know what he means. Interestingly, the physical sense of corporeal heft and presence is strong for Monroe both in colour and black-and-white, though subtly different in each. Her nude scene in the never-completed Cukor SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE is all impressionistic light-on-water sparkle, yet she still comes across peachy and squeezy. In SOME LIKE IT HOT she’s a topographical riot in a highly censorable Orry-Kelly creation that’s halfway between a dress and a shadow.

So the term has use. In RASHOMON, which is Kurosawa’s most tactile film, Mifune has flesh impact too —


Machiko Kyo makes expressive use of the Mifune shoulder-flesh.

But it’s such a horrible phrase. Wilder, a great writer, surely sensed that, but being Wilder he probably didn’t care — his films commingle the desirable and the icky in highly personal ways — “It’s just your basic slashed-wrists love scene,” he told his cameraman on SUNSET BLVD, and in A FOREIGN AFFAIR he outraged his co-author Charles Brackett with the insistence that Marlene Dietrich should spit toothpaste at her lover.

I wondered if it sounded better in German, and using Google Translate I found out. “Fleisch auswirkungen” is what was suggested. It still sounds vile, but strangely cool and scientific at the same time. Add it to your glossary of film terminology now.

Who else has flesh impact? Don’t say Eugene Pallette — I would argue that, apart from his head, a magnificently crenellated pudding which certainly packs a torso’s worth of beef into a confined space, he’s more of a boulder than a body. Think more lateral-subtle-surprise. Who?

26 Responses to “Fleisch-Auswirkungen”

  1. I’m going to say Peter Lorre, because I’m not entirely sure what this means. Edgar Kennedy?

  2. Good choices. Old fat Lorre is like something you buy at the butcher. Young speed-thin Lorre is like a sleek saliva bubble. And EK is all folds and bulges, like his body is trying to flow out of his clothes from every angle.

  3. How about the double edged swords of fifties physicality? Burt Lancaster and Jackie Gleason always struck me as strange examples of incarnate meat, one the paragon, the other the id. Both, to me, always come off remarkably powerful.

  4. Oh yes. Both defy gravity while embodying it. The fifties was a very meaty decade — maybe because the kind of studio artifice that turned Dietrich into a sculpture of light was fading out, maybe because TV brought in a dingier class of player. The fifties seems to be the era when the “juicy steak” started to be held up as a symbol of Americanism, as in Jet Pilot where its consumption symbolizes the conversion of Janet Leigh (meat from the waist down, all steel above) from red communism to red-blooded red-meated Americanism.

  5. jiminholland Says:

    Given Wilder’s mother tongue, things could have been uglier still: the German can be rendered just as correctly in English as ‘meat impact.’

  6. Ha! Immediately preceded by the “meet cute.”

  7. Here’s what “flesh impact” evokes for you: Christine Keeler 2013

  8. Matt Keeslar and Johnathon Schaech certainly have it in Splendor, Gregg Araki’s unjustly neglected remake of Design for Living.

  9. David Boxwell Says:

    Later, he exploited Kim Novak’s similar “flesh impact” in KISS ME, STUPID. Somehow, she managed to transcend his misognynistic, leering approach to her, and she is wonderful despite the humiliations she is forced to undergo.

  10. Poor Christine K! Time and life catch up with everybody.

  11. But I think this is a consistent struggle in Wilder’s work — he wants to deglamorize (which can equal degrade), as part of his Stroheim side, but he usually gives the women enough humanity and casts well so it’s rarely simple misogyny.

  12. Quite true about Wilder. Shirley Maclaine in The Apartment plays the bi boss’ mistress, yet she’s given full-press leading lady treatment. The ending where she reuinites with Jack Lemmon is one of the most romantic in the history of the cinema.

  13. Actually, I think Scarlett Johansson has recently developed it, and is one of the reasons I am currently finding her interesting. There is tons of literal “flesh impact” in Under the Skin, a VERY fleshy film. And it’s curious she gives such a well-rounded performance in Her, in which she never physically appears – perhaps it’s because she makes it easy for us to fill in the missing physical aspects.

  14. Yeah, she looks like she actually weighs something — not a lot, but she would tilt the scales, whereas many of her contemporaries seem airbrushed in frame by frame.

    When Wilder has a love story, his women are superb. When he doesn’t need one, that’s when the misanthropy/misogyny can become an issue.

  15. I’m thinking he spoke with the words reversed, but in his head it was the impact of flesh as a sheer sexual thing on one’s sclerotics, something he was very familiar with, regardless of whether cameras were involved, Size didn’t matter, Clara Bow and Louise Brooks had it, although perhaps it could be construed to the George McFly misspoken example: “You are my density!” – a fifties Freudian slip.

  16. Oh yes, Bow and Brooks absolutely. Pabst is sometimes able to do an impressionistic view of Louise, but her skin texture and muscle tone and all that keep breaking through. And Bow is just a wonderful big ball of baby.

  17. Sidney Greenstreet, from one of Huston’s low angles. Add in his earthquake-rumble laugh, and it’s an unforgettable experience.

    I might also mention a sweaty and practically nude Charlton Heston glowering over sleeping Jack Hawkins in Ben-Hur, and you’ve certainly got flesh and impact, with a difference.

  18. Robert Mitchum…delicious manly ‘flesh impact’!

  19. Heston isn’t just muscle — there’s the all-important sinew and bone too!

    Mitchum is a gigantic slab of man-meat.

    Greenstreet seems curiously light, like a round tent of clothes. He carries himself so well. He transcends the medium of fat.

  20. Okay. Harrison Ford.

  21. That’s an interesting choice. Ford’s face seems to be melting recently.

  22. An obvious choice would be Bardot, but let’s not forget Welles.

  23. The tanned and the pallid. Young Orson has a magnificently sunless pallor, like someone looking out of a chicken carcass.

  24. At what point was it a conscious decision, Mr. Cairns, to make this post into a serial assault on our sense of simile?

  25. kevin mummery Says:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned Anita Ekberg yet. To visualize just how much “flesh impact” she carries, it would be instructive to imagine how bruised her face would become if she were to say, jump rope in the nude. Or operate a jackhammer while topless.

    Laird Cregar also comes to mind, although an appropriate visual metaphor hasn’t occurred to me…no doubt someone wittier than I am will supply one shortly.

  26. Cregar runs while wearing a swimsuit in Mamoulian’s Rings on her Fingers, and nearly incurs facial bruising himself. (And yet he’s so graceful in the water.) I suspect, darkly, that the spectacle may have inspired his fatal crash diet.

    Ekberg is so cinched and cantilevered as to become a kind of cyborg, part rigid and mechanical, part jell-o. I wish the Arena documentary was on YouTube, she’s moving and hilarious — there are clips, and I highly recommend them…

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